Alexander Campbell and the Spirit of the Revolution

By Ron Halbrook

America’s Bicentennial year, 1976, was celebrated with a rash of new historical consciousness-raising events; within the past year Americans have been deluged with much information regarding the nation’s past. One such “Bicentennial event” which may have some interest for the readers of Truth Magazine and those interested in the history of efforts to restore New Testament Christianity was a conference held at Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia, July 8-10. Entitled “Alexander Campbell and the Spirit of the Revolution,” it was deemed appropriate to be conducted at Bethany, which was Campbell’s home for many years until his death in 1866 and is still the site of Bethany College, which he founded in 1840. The conference was funded partially by the West Virginia American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, the remainder of the expense and partial sponsorship being borne by riot only Bethany College but Pepperdine University in Los Angeles as well. Many of the living historians who have written about significant aspects of the Restoration were there, including some familiar to Truth Magazine readers such as David Edwin Harrel, Jr., Earl West, Bill Humble, and William S. Banowsky, all affiliated with groups wearing the name “Churches of Christ.” In addition to other historians from the Christian Churches (Lester McAllister, Robert O. Fife, Perry Gresham, Eva Jean Wrather, Richard Pope, and others) there were other non-Restoration historians present, including Robert Bellah (of the University of California) and Franklin Littell (from Temple University), widely recognized in the historical community for their work in the history and sociology of American religion. Rounding out the speaking format were the representatives of the two sponsoring institutions, Hiram Lester of Bethany and Richard Hughes of Pepperdine; and including several faculty members of the respective schools (Burton Thurston, Larry Grimes, and Corey Gifford). A tour of Restoration-related sites near Bethany and Washington, Pennsylvania was sponsored by the College prior to the conference on July 7-8.

A side note regarding the participants which may be of interest to the readers of this journal concerns Leroy Garrett, who also spoke. Dr. Garrett, along with his perennial compatriot, Carl Ketcherside, began promoting and participating in a series of “Unity Forums” about 1965. Although there were a number of other similar forums occurring annually around the country (among such ones with which we are familiar is the one which met for several years each April in Indianapolis), this particular series occured every July for a decade, usually on the campus of a Restoration related college and was the “flagship” of the Garrett / Ketcherside Unity Forums. Beginning at Bethany College, in 1966, the forums were held, among other places, at Milligan College (Johnson City, TN), 1967; Southeastern Christian College (Winchester, KY), 1968; Lubbock (TX) Christian College, 1970; Atlanta (GA) Christian College, 1971; University of Tulsa (OK), 1973; Scarritt College (Nashville, TN), 1974; and “Churches of Christ” in West Islip, NY (1969), and Cupertino, CA (1972). These conferences often featured Garrett and/ or Ketcherside themselves, as well as others such as Pat Boone, Charles Holt, J. Ervin Waters, and regular writers for Mission, Integrity, Restoration Review, and Mission Messenger. At the last of this series of decade long forums, held again at Bethany in 1975, a meeting of some kind was suggested for the next year but no specific plan emerged. Hiram J. Lester, faculty member at Bethany, enlisted Richard T. Hughes of Pepperdine University to help arrange a Bicentennial study on Campbell and the Restoration Movement. “Historians and educators of national reputation” were chosen to “represent a breadth of opinion as well as a wealth of scholarship” (brochure). Rather than a “unity conference” of speakers from a so-called Restoration background, a historical conference was put together, made up of scholars-some of whom like Robert Bellah, and Franklin Littell had no Restoration connection at: all-who could examine Campbell and the Revolutionary spirit from a historical perspective. Therefore, the national historical conference was sponsored jointly by Bethany College, Pepperdine University of Malibu, California, and the West Virginia American Revolution Bicentennial Commission (WVARBC). Instead of being a continuation of Garrett’s Unity Forums,” this conference at Bethany actually was designed by Hughes and the WVARBC to be a kind of successor to a previous conference at Pepperdine in June of 1975, titled “Restitution, Dissent, and Renewal.” This conference, while including some Restoration related material, historians, and spokesmen, such as Harrell, Hughes, Raymond Muncy of Harding College (Searcy, AR), and Everett Ferguson of Abilene (TX) Christian College, also included well-known non-Restoration historians such as Edwin Scott Gaustad (University of California, Riverside), Samuel S. Hill (University of Florida), Robert Michaelson (University of California, Santa Barbara), James Leo Garrett (Baylor University), Donald Durnbaugh (Bethany Theological Seminary) and Littell, among others. In the words of Mission magazine, “It should be underscored that this conference is neither an ecumenical conference nor a lectureship. Rather, it is a high-level, scholarly historical conference designed for church historians, specialists in European and American history, and other individuals interested in the history of the believers’ churches in Europe, American, and elsewhere.. .” (Mission, VIII:8, February, 1975, p. 20; see reports of this conference in Mission, IX:2 & IX:3, August and September / October, 1975, pp. 27 ff. & 5lff.). The Bethany conference was designed along the same lines, rather than being the sort of “ecumenical conference” or “unity forum” Leroy Garrett tried to make it (see below). The conference provided much helpful material for anyone interested in early American church history and the Restoration Movement. We attended the Bethany conference and offer the following observations and comments.

Introductory Lectures

Perry E. Gresham, President of Bethany College, 1953-72, discussed “Mr. Campbell and the American Dream.” Gresham said Campbell was greatly stirred by the same influences that had sparked the American Revolution and created the American Dream: (1) the English counterpart to the French Enlightenment, but without skepticism; (2) the Age of Capitalism; and (3) the thought of Bacon, Newton, Locke, and Milton, especially John Locke’s works on Human Understanding and Tolerance. But in addition, Campbell was enthralled by the rediscovery of the Bible in Scotland and England. He “not only admired Jefferson, he read him,” and shared his intense concern for education. Gresham’s conclusion was that Campbell looked to churches and schools to “redeem man from his propensities of selfishness and greed.”

Hiram Lester of Bethany discussed American “civil religion” — “A Religion Hebraic, But Not Jewish; Protestant, But Not Christian.” Robert N. Bellah’s seminal article of 1967 on civil religion was reviewed, pointing to the blend of religious ideas in American politics. General religious concepts, not specifically Jewish or Protestant or Catholic, are reflected in most solemn public addresses by civic leaders. The “Confession” includes: (1) God’s ultimate sovereignty, even above the electorate; (2) God, not state power, ultimately grants human rights; (3) God’s work must be America’s. American civil religion can be defined from different angles as a transcendent, universal religion, religious nationalism, the democratic faith of humane values, Protestant civic piety, or American folk religion. Lester pointed to the use of Biblical imagery in colonial descriptions of the New World. America was Canaan, the Revolution was the colonists’ Exodus, and the American people Israel under God’s hand — “the American Israel” being often used: Benjamin Franklin wanted Moses at the Red Sea on the American seal; Thomas Jefferson wanted Israel in the wilderness led by the cloud and fire. The Civil War was viewed by many as America’s Atonement — a redemptive price for past sins. Many people spoke of America’s future as the Millennium’, and the Campbells were influenced by this concept. At one point, Alexander called the American Revolution “the American Passover.” The panel following Lester’s speech examined mostly one question: Is American civil religion different in quality or only in kind from the blending of politics and religion which produced Nazi Germany?

“Enlightenment Influence on Protestant Thought in Early National America” was presented by Samuel C. Pearson, Jr., a Disciples historian of Southern Illinois University. As a background, he talked about the incessant attack of the 17th-18th Century Enlightenment on “The. Church” bequeathed by the Medieval Age. All inherited and traditional systems were challenged by the Enlightenment campaign for world renovation through reason. “Experience” became the watchword and science the model in the quest for truth. So-called Christendom felt called upon to clarify its position on at least three fronts. (1) The area of Reason and Revelation was defended largely by John Locke. In his 1695 “Reasonableness of Christianity,” he defended the content and reasonableness of Christianity against both Deists and atheists. (2) Debates on the question of Evil were sparked by men like Voltaire. God was made a defendant to be convicted or vindicated in these discussions on the meaning and cause of evil. (3) On the front of Religion and Morality, defenders of the faith went on the offensive. They felt especially strong in arguing for a vital relation between religion and morality. At any rate, the English Enlightenment writers were well known in America; Locke and Newton were popular well beyond that time. Pearson judged the new Republic in America as the Enlightenment in practice and noted that American Protestantism showed the marked influence of Enlightenment thought. Alexander Campbell like many others of his time utilized Lockean apologetics, although not slavishly. Locke said intuition recognized, “I am,” and can deduce, “Therefore, God is.” Campbell said we cannot deduce or imagine God, but must depend on testimony-God revelaed Himself to Adam and the testimony was handed down.

Bethany professor of Mid-Eastern studies, Burton B. Thurston, dealt with “Alexander Campbell and the American Hermeneutics of the 19th Century.” Thurston said that Campbell was conversant with the work of American pioneers in the field of Biblical interpretation or hermeneutics, including Moses Stuart, J.S. Buckminister, Andrews Norton, William E. Channing, and Thomas Parker (who wrote 30 articles on the subject in 1836 alone but was also more liberal than the others). Norton, Stuart, and Campbell propagated many of the same ideas on interpretation, and Campbell acknowledged his indebtedness to Stuart. The Calvinist claim that the Holy Spirit illuminates word meanings in Scripture was vigorously opposed by Stuart. He emphasized the work of the Spirit in inspiration, but argued that if the Calvinist position be true then Bible is not a revelation in the form we have it. We must understand the Bible as we do any other book or language. In the Millennial Harbinger of 1846, Campbell published seven rules for interpreting Scripture, stressing attention to historical circumstances (who, when, where, etc.), dispensational placement, linguistic principles inherent in the nature of language, common word usage, restraint in interpreting symbols, and the necessity of coming within “the understanding distance” in order to fully appreciate Bible teaching (i.e., the will to know and obey truth).

The Civil Religion

Robert N. Bellah, sociologist and historian at the University of California at Berkeley (who began the current controversy over civil religion in his 1967 article on the subject), spoke on “The Revolution and the Civil Religion.” American civil religion is what Abraham Lincoln called “our ancient faith.” Bellah pointed to this fundamental faith or “normative core” in the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farewell Address (to which Hamilton and Madison contributed), and the Gettysburg Address. This faith includes (1) a God transcending ‘political laws and standing in judgment over, civil institutions; (2) the non-sacred nature of the political order, demanding a change of government when it violates the higher or sacred law; and (3) the necessity of an inner principle of love and duty causing people to govern themselves in order for a Republic to stand, i.e., religion and morality are the “pillars of human happiness.” Bellah also discussed the recurring strain of civil millennarianism, going all the way back to men like John Winthrop who said, “we cannot fail God,” even before setting foot in the New World. Cotton Mather said, “We are God’s new Israel.” But doubters like Roger Williams have rejected this self-conception, denying that the Ship of State is the Ark of Christ! He denied that blessings in this world are the sign of God’s grace and urged rather the need of “soul blessedness,” with the expectation of persecution and rejection in this world. (Even Bellah, a religious sociologist, seemed unable to comprehend the mind-set of a man like Williams, who was willing to take the heady step of separation from all other human beings and their opinions, even including his own wife, in order to stand alone doing what he understood God’s will to be.) Bellah said the Founding Fathers of the Republic rejected the highly optimistic view of the Cotton Mathers and the deeply pessimistic view of the Roger Williams, seeing America not as a divine nation but an experiment offering hope to the world under the providence of a transcendent God. Though Campbell made statements at times bordering on both of the more extreme views, Bellah judged that he was, for the most part, in the moderate tradition of the Founding Fathers.

Alexander Campbell

Robert O. Fife of the Los Angeles Westwood Christian Foundation chronicled “Alexander Campbell’s Role in the Virginia Constitutional Convention, 18291830.” The only elective office Campbell ever sought was a representative of Brooke County to the Virginia Constitutional Convention. He represented the spirit of western reform, locked in battle with eastern power. Some of the pragmatic Easterners pled that abstract truth was not valid for political structures. At one with the spirit of the Revolutionary Period, Campbell appealed to principle and abstract truth in an effort to effect reform. On October 24, 1830, he made a significant proposal: all free white males should have the right of suffrage. The right is conferred by nature, he said. It is the right of thinking, willing, expressing oneself, and God, gave, this. power. Therefore, denying such a natural rigt is more than unjust, it is sinful. The Tidewater elite feared that general suffrage would end up in the abolition of slavery (which Campbell also proposed) and feared the reign of “King Numbers” as ending in excess and corruption. Campbell responded that he loved “King Numbers” because the alternatives were unacceptable. Every major western proposal for reform was rejected, including Campbell’s in the interest of public education (which in his mind was wedded to general suffrage, for he no more than Thomas Jefferson wanted an uneducated general suffrage).

An overall interpretation .of Campbell’s work was offered by Richard T. Hughes of Pepperdine University in “From Primitive Church to Civil Religion: The Millennial Odessy of Alexander Campbell.” As in a similar paper published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion last year, Hughes seemed to think that Campbell was always moved by a highly optimistic, or millennial, hope for mankind-a world-wide reign of the principles of Christ. Before 1840, Campbell hinged this hope upon a return to the ancient gospel and the primitive church. He sought to defuse the divisive power of human traditions and opinions by focusing on and seeking to restore the commonly recognized faith of the primitive church. According to Hughes, after 1840 Campbell shifted his emphasis. The message of restoring the ancient gospel and primitive church was too slow in uniting men for the introduction of the Millennium, so he began to look to civil religion and the power of the Republic to unite men under Christian principles for the Millennium. Hughes pointed out that most millennial Protestants had accepted the latter approach all along. Campbell “baptized” orthodox Protestantism, looked to civic institutions such as common schools to topple priestcraft, expected the collapse of tyranny and ignorance in the world through the American experiment and, confusing the church and the country, waited for the dawn .of the Millennium. Campbell expected something of the primitive faith that is impossible: universal acceptance. Hughes observed that the Anabaptists had long before understood that the restoration approach will not be universally accepted.

Of Love And Unity

In “The Campbells and the American Experience: A Bicentennial Reflection,” Eva Jean Wrather tried to summarize the life and times of Alexander Campbell. She attempted to distill the biographical material being reworked as a definitive biography of Campbell for a major publishing house. Her lengthy reading included standard historical data about the Campbell’s lives, with a statement of their religious views colored by her Disciples of Christ perspective rather than being historically accurate. (She said at one point that they preached there was only one law in religion: “the law of love.” She did not document this modern nebulosity in their writings. Next, Restoration Review editor Leroy Garrett repeated his serially-published “Alexander Campbell’s America As Revealed in His Travel Letters.” The beautiful scenery, difficult schedule, diverse modes of travel, great distances covered, and hardships on Campbell’s family were all recounted from his travel letters published in the Millennial Harbinger. Garrett’s speech was unique in that it diverged from the profitable historical material presented by all the other speakers, especially in the first several minutes. His one track mind apparently misled him into thinking he was at one of his unity forums; he recognized different strands of the Restoration, mentioned various journals represented by writers or editors present, pointed out various individuals (hoping out loud that Ed Harrell, Steve Wolfgang, and Ron Halbrook had not absented themselves simply because he was speaking — which we were not, having left earlier to relax and “caucus” in a side room), and made an impassioned plea for his new unity movement, actually creating a circus-like atmosphere with shouts of “Amen” and applause from his own partisan followers. Garrett alone, of all the speakers, seemed under the delusion that everyone had come to “experience” his kind of unity and fellowship-a delusion absurd on the face of it since the West Virginia Revolution Bicentennial Commission helped fund the event and notable historians like Bellah and Littlel had no connection with the so-called Restoration, no knowledge of Garrett’s fellowship fantasy, and thus no desire to share in it. Several of us acquainted with his fantasy had no desire to share in it, either!

Truth Magazine XXII: 7, pp. 123-126
February 16, 1978